Although Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar has embarked on a new chapter in his political career, it remains to be seen whether he can chart a path for himself outside of the established political parties of Pakistan|Facebook/Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar


Some may argue that the former PPP Senator’s lineage made his political career inevitable.
Published March 12, 2023

It was a typical Islamabad evening during the summer of 2022. A grand house was the venue for a lavish dinner, where the table groaned under the weight of plentiful food, as guests ranging from politicians to bureaucrats and journalists streamed in and out of the gathering.

During the incessant discussion on what the coming days held, two men slipped away into a side room. One was the finance minister at the time and the other belonged to an allied party.

These two men seemed unlikely partners in that moment. The first man was Miftah Ismail — a businessman turned technocrat politician from Karachi who, through a series of unexpected events, had ended up as the finance minister of a party known for giving its key party and cabinet positions to a close knit, ethnic group. The other man was Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a constituency politician and a known face in the political arena in Islamabad.

But that evening, despite their fame and fortune, both of them knew their days in the ruling coalition were numbered.

Some may argue that the former PPP Senator’s lineage made his political career inevitable. However, is he a typical constituency politician or a visionary straddling two worlds? What path is he actually on now that he has been sidelined from his party? And does this path hold out hope for dissidents within the mainstream parties?

What exactly did they discuss? Khokhar keeps it vague: “Miftah bhai was trying to approach the matter indirectly when I cut him short and said that I was game for whatever he had in mind.” His face breaks out in a wide smile, revealing his unadulterated enjoyment of the moment.

Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar handing over his resignation to Senate Chairperson Sadiq Sanjrani | Twitter/Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar
Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar handing over his resignation to Senate Chairperson Sadiq Sanjrani | Twitter/Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar

But at that moment, neither of them knew how quickly they would have to knock those vague plans into shape — Ismail was made to resign as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) finance minister in September and Khokhar as a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) senator in November of 2022.

But even though one resignation was of the country’s finance minister in the midst of an economic crisis, Khokhar’s departure from the Senate was no less significant. The young politician’s tweets in favour of the arrested Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) politicians who were screaming about custodial torture had won him many hearts and minds since April. He was the first one to speak up publicly about PTI spokesperson Shahbaz Gill’s torture and was also the first to speak up in favour of colleague and fellow senator Azam Swati at a time when no else in the government was willing to do so.

As a senior anchorperson remarked after his resignation, “Mustafa was always liked, but his decision to stand up for his own political rivals won him widespread respect.”

It is an unlikely path for a constituency politician to have taken, most of whom are rarely known for juggling activism along with their political careers, which take them from party to party and ideology to ideology.


But then again, in Khokhar’s story, one can find stories of Purana [Old] and Naya [New] Pakistan, not in terms of parties but in the evolution of a country.

The 44-year-old politician’s father, Muhammad Nawaz Khokhar, was one of the early members of the PPP and its secretary general for Rawalpindi. He later departed from the party because he contested the 1985 election despite the PPP boycott. By 1990, the elder Khokhar had joined the anti-PPP alliance, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI).

Three years later, Nawaz Sharif announced the formation of his political party from the Khokhar house in Islamabad because, as Mustafa puts it, “My father offered his home to Nawaz Sharif” to do so. During the PPP tenure in the mid-1990s, Khokhar’s father was arrested, only to later return to the PPP fold. By the time the younger Khokhar was a university student, his father had been arrested once again, after the coup led by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

When probed about his earliest political memories, Khokhar mentions the 1985 Election Day and accompanying his father during visits to constituents. But in his more unguarded moments, he reveals what remains seared in his brain — the “political victimisation of the 90s.”

As elections drew closer, he had to make certain decisions about his future. The PML-Q was in shambles and he didn’t think the PML-N would be able to improve on its average 2008 performance in Islamabad. Khokhar set his eyes on the PPP and sought a meeting with its co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Mustafa’s tone changes when he mentions meeting his father in the courts when he returned from university in the United Kingdom (UK), or when he recounts the toll this took on his mother, who had to cope with this alone while simultaneously tending to her young children.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, here with Yousuf Raza Gillani, represents a changing of the guard in the political arena | White Star
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, here with Yousuf Raza Gillani, represents a changing of the guard in the political arena | White Star

This “political victimisation” comes up again when Mustafa is probed about his reaction to the arrests of Gill or Swati. His deep voice grows deeper and the smile melts into a frown. He pauses when asked about the impact it had on his father, eventually saying, “He put an ad in the paper to celebrate his acquittal from all the cases, which took 20 years. It was only then I realised how much it had affected him.”

But the absurdity of politics in Pakistan never evades him. He laughingly recounts having met many of the politicians of today in jail, along with his father: “Yousuf Raza Gillani formed an association of Adialians after they were all released from Adiala jail.”


Mustafa’s own political career began with the 2002 election, which he contested and lost. By the time the 2008 elections came round, he joined the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) because the PPP ticket had gone to Islamabad’s Nayyar Bokhari and the PML-N wasn’t an option. But when PML-Q became an ally of the PPP, Khokhar landed the human rights ministry and was appointed its adviser.

He remembers working on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus status and how there was little to no pressure from the government or the party itself about what he was or was not doing. “There was no accountability,” he says, adding, “Aisay tau mulk nahin chaltay [This is not how countries are run].”

But at the same time, he mentions that “There was constant pressure on the government from the higher judiciary. Every week began with the government assuming it would be sent home.” Political management rather than governance consumed all the energy of the government.

As elections drew closer, he had to make certain decisions about his future. The PML-Q was in shambles and he didn’t think the PML-N would be able to improve on its average 2008 performance in Islamabad. Khokhar set his eyes on the PPP and sought a meeting with its co-chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

He managed to meet the young leader in Islamabad and the two hit it off immediately, surrounded as they were with senior politicians who were contemporaries of their fathers. “We both lit up cigarettes and struck up a frank conversation.” He felt the two could talk openly because, “We were usually surrounded by much older people — baat kartay huay bhi dus dafa sochna parrta tha [We had to think ten times before saying anything in front of them].”

The traditional politicians of the city are now becoming increasingly sidelined. The recently cancelled local government elections in the city are a case in point. Only the PTI was able to field candidates for every council and those from other parties, like Khokhar, are struggling to find space.

But the 2013 election in Islamabad took him by surprise — the PML-N and PTI won the two seats in Islamabad. However, it was an election where the results in Punjab were more or less a whitewash for the PPP. He recounts the meeting in Lahore where former president and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari met with the party’s ticket-holders to discuss the defeat. One member got up and addressed Zardari, saying that there was a perception problem. “‘Whenever anything goes wrong in Punjab, it is blamed on you, Zardari sahib. This needs to change’,” he recalls being said.

Indeed, the party, or rather Zardari, had an image problem in Punjab which was hastening the decline of the PPP in the province. Allegations of corruption, a crippling electricity crisis and the PPP’s incapacity to pursue meaningful power politics over the five years of its rule had resulted in the 2013 election results. Its support for agriculture, setting up the social safety net of the Benazir Income Support Programme and shepherding the 18th constitutional amendment, which gave more power to the provinces, didn’t seem to have helped the PPP much.

But even then, there was hope in the form of Bilawal. As Khokhar himself says, “We thought Bilawal, since he was now becoming politically active, would take over the party.”

Miftah Ismail (left) and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (centre) are considered two dissidents from within PML-N | White Star
Miftah Ismail (left) and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (centre) are considered two dissidents from within PML-N | White Star


Many, including Khokhar, thought that if Bilawal came forward and the father retreated, the party’s fortunes would be revived. But this didn’t happen, thus allowing Imran Khan to fill this vacuum, as he took on the PML-N, providing the opposition so to speak.

According to Khokhar, “When the PML-N government was destabilised by Imran and Tahirul Qadri’s dharnas [protests], PPP helped save the parliament and democracy. But the people didn’t see it this way. For them, it was the PTI which led the opposition.”

The people saw it this way also because the PPP did little public mobilisation in Punjab and the party’s leadership’s activities remained limited to indoor meetings. According to many, the Bhutto family was concerned about security, and rightly so, but this did not provide much consolation to those in the field.

This, coupled with the establishment’s support to the PTI meant that, by the time of the 2018 elections, most politicians who were interested in contesting an election in Punjab migrated out from the PPP. Soon, there were only a few known faces left with the party in the province — Khokhar, Qamar Zaman Kaira and Chaudhry Manzoor, among a handful of others. The joke in town was that PPP politicians in Punjab could fit into one car.

The election did improve the party’s tally in the province, but only marginally so. Khokhar had by now been elected to the Senate from Sindh and he became Bilawal’s spokesman. By 2020, he resigned from the spokesman’s position, but this did not create many ripples in his relationship with the young chairman.

For him, the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was a hopeful moment. Behind the scenes, the PML-N and the PPP spoke of a loose electoral alliance or seat adjustment. According to one account, the PML-N felt that the PPP’s absence from Punjab had led to the rise of the PTI, which was now a threat to the PML-N itself; therefore, it was in PML-N’s interest to ensure the PPP got space in Punjab and, consequently, electoral victories, for the ‘carful’ of PPP Punjab hopefuls.


In those heady days of a PPP-PMLN romance, the Senate elections came up. Khokhar was a key player in the election of Yousuf Raza Gillani to the Senate, when the PTI failed to elect its own finance minister to the upper house. But more than the actual events, what caught the attention of observers was the pattern that emerged.

Votes were given in exchange for the promise of a PML-N ticket for the next elections, while the PPP was said to be in charge of the negotiations. And then there was the video, allegedly of Gillani’s son and PTI MNAs, where Sindh government funds were allegedly being offered as bait, further shaping the perception of the PPP doing politics through palace intrigues.

These perceptions strengthened in the days that followed. First, the PPP changed its mind about the leader of the opposition position going to the PML-N and then, overnight, the party accepted Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) votes to secure the seat. BAP was widely seen as a party constructed by the establishment, originally to undermine the PML-N government during its tenure from 2013-2018. This came as a shock to not just the other allies but also to some party people.

From here on, Khokhar began making his dissent and disagreement with the party public. The vote of no confidence (VONC) against Imran Khan and the formation of the PDM government didn’t help matters.

Even then, it took time for the reaction to come because the PPP has a better record than other mainstream parties. In its post-2008 avatar, the party has large-heartedly allowed its high profile Punjab members to express divergent views, while the ones from Sindh rarely seem to have any differences to express.

But in the post-2008 era, where the party vote is consolidating in general, the role of ‘electables’ — local strongmen the parties are dependent on — is also reducing (despite the obsession with electables in recent years). Even if they can manage an election on their own, these electables still need access to the state purse strings and, post-the 18th Amendment, these purse strings are now controlled by the chief ministers. To a large extent, provinces have become one party autocracies.

Expressing critical views is becoming difficult, perhaps even impossible. Exceptions exist for a specific reason: the weakness of a party or a leader, such as Imran pre-VONC, when many within PTI felt the party was over; or for some of the PPP Punjab members, because the party needs them more than they need the party. And, of course, the voices bubbling up within the PML-N now highlight the weakening electoral position of the party.

Khokhar was allowed leeway but only in the second half of 2022. Nevertheless, his tweets did far more than simply irk his leadership and he was asked to resign. There are whispers around the city that the decision came from elsewhere but, once it was conveyed to the senator, he didn’t take long to oblige.

A senior party leader delivered him the message. The next day, Khokhar went to the Senate chairman and handed in his resignation, which was accepted with alacrity. Those close to him say he wasn’t sure of contesting the next elections on a PPP ticket anyway.


Here, it has to be said, Khokhar could take these liberties because he perhaps didn’t fear losing the PPP ticket. In Islamabad, more than the party’s vote bank, he gets votes for who he is. And for this the PPP was willing to turn a blind eye to his ‘uncomfortable’ views. But, as is an open secret, this space is also not the Wild West, where politicians can run amok, which is why, eventually, the PPP felt it was time to ask for his resignation.

His quick and ready reaction also highlighted the changing face of Islamabad. Islamabad was established in a region which initially housed a number of small villages, including one where Khokhar’s family came from. His family moved to the capital in the early 1980s.

When Islamabad was established, its jurisdiction included the purely urban areas, as well as the nearby villages. As Khokhar explains, elections in the city were earlier determined by the voters in the rural areas. This is where the biradari [community] vote would allow local strongmen to win elections. Khokhar, Nayyar Bokhari and Anjum Aqeel,

among others, are all Islamabad politicians who can trace their roots back to the original inhabitants of this region.

Over time, most of these people or their families also became involved in what has come to be known ubiquitously as ‘the property business’, a euphemism for land grabs.

But as Khokhar explains, this rural domination has now given way. As the city expands, the voting pattern of urban voters — who look to parties instead of biradaris — has changed. It began in 2013, when the PTI and the PML-N won the two seats in the city and, by 2018, PTI swept the capital.

Perhaps for the first time, outsiders were able to win Islamabad seats — PTI fielded Multan’s Javed Hashmi and then Karachi’s Asad Umer successfully in the city in the same constituency. Khokhar elaborates on this, saying, “Rural influence has waned. We have managed to retain the vote bank. In 2008, I got 38,000 votes, in 2013, 44,000 and, five years later, my uncle who contested the elections got 36,000 in a smaller halqa [constituency; by then Islamabad had increased its constituencies from two to three, so each became smaller] but PTI attracted new and some of the older voters.”

Part of this change is not just because of a shift from rural to urban as Islamabad expands. A large part of the city’s urban residents now live in areas developed by housing societies on nearly all sides of the capital, as well as ‘unplanned’ areas such as Bani Gala. This change in voting patterns has also partly been influenced by the new migration to the city from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after militancy destabilised the province. This voting bloc is one reason why PTI has been able to do so well in Islamabad.

The traditional politicians of the city are now becoming increasingly sidelined. The recently cancelled local government elections in the city are a case in point. Only the PTI was able to field candidates for every council and those from other parties, like Khokhar, are struggling to find space.

The real challenge for them is how to attract the new voter. Khokhar, however, doesn’t agree that traditional politicians can’t reach the voters or adapt to new means of communication. “But what do we offer them? That is the challenge.”


What perhaps sets Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar apart from other constituency politicians is his interest in human rights, but it is not a new passion for him. During the PTI tenure, he served as the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Human Rights and shot to notice by ruffling the feathers of both the PTI and the establishment. He summoned the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps (IGFC) to the committee

while investigating the killing of university student Hayat Baloch by a serviceman. When journalist Matiullah Jan was picked up, Khokhar called in the police chief of Islamabad. He also heard from students booked for sedition.

It is hard to understand Khokhar’s interest in human rights. Pakistani politicians are so used to their single-hhgunexpected questions. Khokhar is no different. He speaks of his degree in law, his earlier stint as the federal minister of human rights. “I wrote a letter to the military on the enforced disappearances — it didn’t go down well,” he says, grinning widely. It just sounds text-bookish, like the spiels politicians have ready for television talk shows.

But then he recounts a childhood memory. He was 13 or 14 years old and an honour killing had taken place in one of the villages near Islamabad. He recounts, “I can still remember an elder from the community saying, ‘We can’t even have a dheri [mound of earth] there [where the woman was buried] because women would gather to mourn’.”

As he tells the story, he points out that the man he is quoting would not use the word qabr [grave], instead resorting only to dheri. All these years later, he cannot get over the words. “Dheri bhi nahin banaani [Can’t even have a mound of earth].”

The story for him also symbolises the world he comes from. He is aware of the two worlds he straddles — Islamabad and its urban, privileged life on the one hand, and the rural world he comes from on the other. He feels he has to “cover a longer distance than the city dwellers, to evolve”, from the village life where mores are not necessarily governed through legal frameworks, to a world of progressive thinking.

“Part of me wants to let go of it completely while another…” he says as he trails off. On the surface, with his constant references to Western philosophy, his equal comfort with English and Urdu and his presence in the trendy cafes of Islamabad, his roots are not usually on display, despite the outward signs, such as his staple politician’s wardrobe of shalwar qameez and the SUV he drives.

But what is this rebel without a pause now up to? He has recently been going round with other political dissidents addressing audiences about the “real issues” of Pakistan. Has he decided to give up politics for a life speaking at seminars?

His big frame shakes with laughter when confronted by the rumours that he, Ismail and former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi are putting together a new king’s party. He speaks of the breakdown of politics (“We are headed towards an implosion,” he says), the role of the establishment which has paralysed politics, and the absence of democracy within parties. But how will their seminars change any of the problems he has identified?

After reiterating for the nth time that the three ‘mavericks’ are not going to establish a party, he grows quiet and, after a pause, says, “2023 will be more or less the last election for Zardari sahib, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. Allah give them life, but their age will make It difficult for them to be actively involved five years from now.”

“After 2023, there will be leadership transitions within these parties and perhaps a new leadership will also emerge. And, if the establishment lets the change come organically, we will see evolution, new parties and new leaderships.”

This conversation has to happen, he says, without going into any further detail.

The writer is a journalist.
She tweets @arifanoor72

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2023